Comair planes grounded indefinitely over safety concerns

What was supposed to be a 24-hour grounding of Comair planes over safety issues on Saturday (March 12) was extended indefinitely on Sunday following the airline failing to address findings communicated to it by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

Comair flies under the British Airways and Kulula brands. This is the latest calamity to befall the airline, which was placed in business rescue in 2020 as a result of government-imposed travel restrictions at the onset of Covid-related lockdowns.

In a statement released on Sunday, SACAA says while it recognizes the efforts made by Comair “to close the findings as speedily as possible”, and that corrective action had been made in respect of some findings, other findings had not been attended to by early Sunday morning, prompting the suspension of its air operator certificate.

The suspension follows the visit by SACAA to Comair to investigate and determine the cause of a spate of occurrences affecting “a concerning number of flights operated by Kulula.com and BA Comair”.

The SACAA sought to confirm Comair’s compliance with applicable Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The inspection was also aimed at reviewing Comair’s quality control management system (QC) and safety management systems (SMS) to establish compliance related to reporting, analysis and follow-up on occurrences, and corrective action plans to prevent recurrence, ”says the civil aviation authority.

The regulator raising three Level 1 findings, and one Level 2 finding.

A Level 1 finding is an outcome that poses an immediate risk to safety and security, and must be closed with immediate effect, and a level 2 finding must be closed within seven days. The SACAA statement says it had accepted the corrective action and evidence submitted in respect of one Level 1 finding.

The regulator says it does not issue such orders lightly, and is committed to returning Comair plans to full service as soon as possible. However, the commitment to safety in this case “supersedes any other need and this is to ensure that South Africa maintains its safety record of having zero fatal airline accidents in over thirty years on South African soil”.

It adds: “The lives of our aviation personnel and the users of civil aviation services are paramount, and it is a responsibility the regulator does not take lightly.”

There were reports in February of a British Airways flight from East London to Johannesburg returning to East London after the landing gear failed to retract. DispatchLIVE reported that Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane was on the flight. No injuries were reported.

In another reported incident in January, the door of a British Airways Boeing 777-300ER was ripped off during a routine towing at Cape Town International Airport.

Kulula says grounding is not justified

Kulula notified customers of the weekend grounding, adding that it did not believe the suspension of services was justified. The SACAA says the airline can appeal the decision.

“Despite working through the night [on Saturday]Comair will not be able to resume operations today [Sunday]. The SACAA still needs to review documentation provided overnight. We continue to engage constructively with the SACAA, ”said Comair.

The airline said it is re-accommodating some passengers who have been affected by the suspension and will publish a list of all canceled flights shortly.

The regulator says continuous improvement is a principle it will work hard at elevating as it ensures that aviation remains the safest mode of transport in this country.

“This discipline in ensuring high levels of compliance with civil aviation safety and security is demonstrated by the continuous prestigious performance of South Africa in international safety and security assessments,” says the SACAA statement.

South Africa is periodically subject to independent international audits by bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to measure South Africa’s compliance with the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) of this United Nations body. In this regard, South Africa was last audited by ICAO in 2018 in terms of the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Program – Continuous Monitoring Approach (USOAP CMA) and the country improved its compliance levels in that audit. ”

In response to the suspension notice, the Department of Transport issued a statement saying SA has an impeccable aviation safety record “insofar as airline operations are concerned”.

“This is due to our robust aviation safety regime and the vigilance SACAA exercises in ensuring full compliance by airlines. We are committed to ensuring compliance with aviation safety prescripts without fear, favor or prejudice. ”

Numsa ‘dismayed’ at grounding

Comair’s majority trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) says it is dismayed at the grounding decision as a result of safety concerns which pose a potential hazard. This includes a Kulula Boeing 737-800 experiencing engine failure.

“We are deeply concerned about workers and the safety of the public at large given these very serious occurrences,” says Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola.

“We are not surprised at these unfortunate developments as we have been warning the airline from within, of the dangers of their cost cutting measures and that this would eventually have the impact of compromising safety standards, by not giving their aircraft enough ground time for proper maintenance.

“We demand that Comair focus on running the company and implementing a clear turnaround strategy. They must stop cutting salaries and benefits of the lowest paid workers in the company as this has clearly proven not to be a solution. The CEO Glenn Orsmond does not have a vision to turn the organization around and this is contributing to the crisis. ”

The trade union says two years after going into business rescue, the airline company is still under business rescue and refuses to commit to a date as to when the business rescue process will end and the company will be handed back to its own management and board. This is a clear lack of confidence in the leadership, it says.

Comair has engaged in the three section 189 processes [a Labour Relations Act requirement to initiate staff retrenchments]reducing staff headcount and unilaterally removing benefits of our members for the apparent health of the company but all these have achieved is an overworked staff, and the grounding of the airline due to compromised safety standards, ”says Numsa.

“Our members wish to pass a vote of no confidence in the CEO and his executive to protect their jobs and livelihoods which are threatened by management decisions that put profits over people and people’s livelihoods. We demand the resignation of Glen Orsmond and his executive and the withdrawal of the current threatening section 189 notice that was issued on the 1st of March 2022 to our members. ”

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